By Ron Lieback, founder/CEO of ContentMender, productivity hacker and author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer’s Guide.
Sometimes conventional wisdom isn’t so wise. I guarantee if you ask most people around you, they would say that multitasking is generally the mark of a productive person. But the science is clear: Multitasking is taxing on our brains.
We suffer most from multitasking when working on projects that require active attention. If distractions are a detriment to our productivity, consider multitasking one big distraction.
So if you want to learn to be more productive, eliminate bad habits that form distractions.
Chuck the phone.
The smartphone is the ultimate productivity killer, and so many people get sucked into distracting tasks because of notifications during work.
While some people may justify smartphone usage as a break from tasks, it actually does not recharge your brain like other tasks and may make it harder to regain lost attention.
With that said, here are a few tips to eliminate distractions from your smartphone:
• Put your phone in another room—eliminate the temptation to check it all together.
• Disable all notifications and leave your phone on silent if it is on.
• Program an automated response message to tell people you’re busy.
• Schedule important meetings in advance so you’re not waiting for the phone to ring.
Create a quiet workspace.
Anything that diverts your attention away from your central task is a form of multitasking for your brain. Regardless of where you work, it’s important to eliminate distractions, whether they’re background noises or coworkers coming up to your desk to chat.
Likewise, reserve your workspace specifically for work.
If you want to take a break to check your phone, go to another room. And don’t fraternize at your desk; go to a break room. These small habits can help eliminate any distracting habits and temptations at your desk while you work and make you more focused.
Schedule tasks in advance.
In his new book A World Without Email, Cal Newport argues for a bold new workplace without email, where people work on fewer tasks and tasks are assigned through clear and repeatable processes.
We’ve all experienced those long mornings bouncing back and forth through emails without feeling like we got anything done. Unfortunately, the average worker doesn’t even realize they are multitasking and breaking their attention by viewing every email that pops up on their open tab of Gmail or Outlook.
While I would say just close the tabs, a better solution is to block off time in the day to check emails. By consolidating distracting tasks like checking emails and other forms of communication into scheduled blocks of time, you can eliminate distractions throughout the day. You’ll also be more focused on answering those emails when you do.
Furthermore, scheduling tasks in advance also allows you to plan out your day and leverage periods when you are most productive for active-attention tasks.
Hit the ground running.
Have you ever noticed that you’re usually more productive in the mornings and crash in the afternoons? This phenomenon occurs because our body releases cortisol and dopamine first thing in the morning, which makes us more motivated and energized for work.
Unfortunately, as dopamine wears, you’ll find yourself clamoring for distractions—like the phone—that give you those dopamine hits.
So hit the ground running, completing your most intense work in the morning and saving the dull stuff—like emails—for when you’re burned out.
Don’t forget to take a break.
One of the best features of a Fitbit or any smartwatch is that it will tell you if you don’t reach a certain amount of steps each hour. It’s essentially your reminder to get up from your desk or any task and take a break.
Multiple studies confirm that taking a break renews your focus and even makes you more motivated to get back to the task at hand. In addition, taking a walking break can help you overcome writer’s block or any creative hurdle you might be experiencing.
Taking a break also makes you less likely to want to check your phone or any other distraction while you’re working.
The key is to take the right break, getting up from your desk and maybe going outside for a brief walk. As previously mentioned, distracting activities like watching TV or looking at a smartphone won’t actually refresh your mind.
Train your mind to focus.
Learning to focus takes practice. Meditation is one of the most effective ways to train your brain to focus on a single stimulus and tune out distractions.
However, all you need to learn how to do is master the flow state. The flow state is essentially that state where you completely focus on a task and tune out the outside world. In a flow state, you’ll find yourself consumed by a single task and completely unaware or unwilling to engage with distractions around you.
Create an environment conducive to your flow state, whether it’s using music, silence or even lighting an essential oil diffuser.
Take care of your health.
Finally, your mind and body are intimately connected. As your physical health declines, so too will your mental health and clarity.
I think a lot of multitasking arises from a lack of focus, which makes the brain seek distractions to avoid challenging tasks.
However, you can greatly strengthen your focus by improving your diet and overall physical health. For example, many experts recommend morning exercise to boost your focus. Intense exercise helps release serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which give you motivation and focus.
Ultimately, the more focused and motivated you are, the less likely you’ll reach for distractions or other tasks that drain your productivity.